Black River Produce

The Vermont Connection to Fresh, Local, Organic Foods

Steve Birge spent a few years bartending in Ireland while Mark Curran worked as a carpenter before the duo met on the ski slopes of Vermont. The pair decided to establish a natural food store, which gradually expanded to supply a few of the local restaurants with locally grown and organic produce. Word quickly spread of the quality and freshness of their produce supply. Two clients became five, five became 10, and before either realized it the natural food store was supplying upward of 30 restaurants. Birge and Curran then set the natural food store aside and cofounded Black River Produce (Black River) in 1978 with $600 and a VW bus.

The co-owners have thrived. Black River continues to supply the foodservice industry with the highest quality organic produce, as well as locally grown produce and artisanal value-added products from Vermont’s premier producers. The company supplies over 2,000 accounts with a delivery fleet of 40 refrigerated vehicles, complemented by a staff of almost 150. The operation is based out of a primary warehouse in North Springfield, Vt., and supplies clients within a 120-mile radius, including communities across northwestern Massachusetts, western New Hampshire and all of Vermont over to the New York border. Black River supplies clients as small as a single produce stand to a range of large institutions with many mouths to feed, including summer camps, Middlebury College and multiple restaurants.

“When I was in college, eating local and organic and fair-trade products just wasn’t something my generation did, but it’s not a fad,” asserts Curran. Black River aims to promote the local and organic food movement, as the team strives to offer the greatest selection of locally grown produce and regional specialties like fiddleheads, ramps, garlic scapes and native berries. The produce lineup is augmented with a steady supply of products from year-round growers farther away like West Coast Farms and Earthbound Farms Organic.

“We started out just distributing produce, but we added seafood roughly 15 years ago and dairy probably over a decade ago,” recalls Curran. Black River also sells sustainably sourced fish, like wild-caught salmon from the West Coast, wild Coho Salmon, wild striped bass, and farmed trout, salmon, arctic char and tilapia. In addition, BPR sells artisanal cheeses from local producers such as Edam from Vermont Farmstead Cheese Company and Camembert from Blythedale Farm in Corinth, Vt.

Building Value

Over time, the company has also made a push to represent a greater variety of value-added products made in Vermont. Highlights include cookie dough from Vermont Cookie Love and freshly made pastas from the aptly named Vermont Fresh Pastas. Vermont Fresh Pastas churns out a selection of handmade Italian staples in bulk like tortellini, manicotti and raviolis, as well as ramen noodles, pesto and sauces. The challenge, at least on the distribution end, is that Vermont Fresh Pastas insists on never freezing its product, so it takes a company like Black River and its fleet of refrigerated vehicles to ensure these products find a happy home and retain their freshness.

Black River offers a select few imported items, but the focus has always been on finding and distributing hard-to-find items. This is the reason why Black River only represents a handful of salad dressing producers – like Drew’s All Natural – and also why employees tend to stick with the company for years. “All of our employees are passionate about the food we sell and they understand and see firsthand, every day, how it really benefits our community,” asserts Curran.

Healthy, Wholesome, Delicious

Black River recently expanded its efforts to bring in more organic and locally raised meat. “We tried to promote local meat roughly five years ago, but the price point just wasn’t there,” expands Curran. “So we reintroduced it about two years ago and it’s actually doing really well, not because it’s any less expensive, but because there’s a greater awareness of where those cheap meat prices come from.” Black River’s local beef, pork and lamb might cost a bit more, but clients rest easy knowing that the company commits to representing only meats produced without artificial growth hormones, antibiotics or the addition of pink slime.

In fact, the meat products are doing so well that Black River recently purchased an additional processing facility. The extra facility won’t handle any of the slaughtering, but it will be outfitted to break down sides of beef into steaks, roasts, ground chuck and patties, which can be either sold fresh or frozen.

Further down the road, Curran believes the new plant could also be used to produce additional value-added meat products, like cured meats and sausages. The company was one of the first distributors to pick up Vermont Smoke and Cure’s line of bacon, sausages, hams and meaty treats, but the products have been selling so well that Black River can hardly keep up.
“We recently took a trip to Italy that was arranged by the Vermont Department of Agriculture to learn more about producing salami, dry-aged beef and prosciutto, and I think we could do it just as well as it’s done in Italy,” asserts Curran. The cured meat products would only be offered to the immediate Vermont areas at first, gradually expanding as production increases.

The next few years hold plenty of growth opportunities for Black River, though the company believes that its success is determined by more than just a healthy bottom line. Black River also works to ensure its growth benefits the local producers and farms it represents and that employees are well looked after.

“Especially amongst the colleges we supply, it’s very clear that the emphasis on local, organic and fair trade is not coming from the top down,” expands Curran. “It’s the students and the younger generations who are educated and concerned about the way their food is produced, and I think Vermont is positioned to become a leader in sustainable agriculture.”
When the company does come across the right opportunity, the Black River team will ensure its growth doesn’t come at the cost of the company’s high regard for local agricultural producers. In the process, Black River Produce will help make eating local foods a little bit easier and ensure Vermont-produced foods receive the attention and praise deserved.